On The Road, the Kerouac movie property that languished under the control of Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola for three decades finally broke out of development hell and laid an egg along with the other American movies that came up prizeless in Cannes. This exercise in cultural and historical revisionism has been given ample positive buzz by filmland flacksters to ensure some back end financial success for its backers.
Jack Kerouac's streaming story of beautiful losers who got their kicks slumming in the dives on Route 66 was amped up by Hollywood hypesters as a generation defining novel. But the movie failed to do that because Coppola outsourced the job to a Brazilian director from a billionaire banking family who gentrified the characters developed in On The Road, some of whom fit the slang tag popular during the Tennessee Williams era, white trash.
While Walter Salles had the the right stuff to make a trendy road movie about Che Guevara a decade ago his methods failed to mirror the actual renegade reality of the quintessentially American subculture San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen tagged as beatniks and had traction through the 1960s. Ironically, publisher Jann Wenner's San Francisco-based Rolling Stone which provided the market base Steve Jobs exploited to sell Apple Computers also provided the launch pad for Beatnik 2.0 and young writers who used beatnik chic to enhance their personal brand like Patti Smith. Smith was the wife of notorious guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith of the revolutionary White Panther rock band MC-5 out of Detroit who made the cover of the Rolling Stone in 1969, the same year Kerouac died.
Red blooded American directors like Sam Peckinpagh and Arthur Penn were around when Coppola obtained the movie rights in 1979. But the Reagan Revolution and its yuppie legions were trying to depoliticize the image of working class heroes like Jack and the real Jimmy Hoffa, and America did its road tripping with "the boss" Bruce Springsteen, Billy Ray Cyrus and yuppie Jay McEnerney instead.
Producing a road movie about working class rebels targeted to an upscale audience avoids the Cold War politics that shaped the Beatniks into a global cultural force. Facing tough competition from Moscow in the culture wars America needed a sexy, young literary world stud and Norman Mailer lacked the Brando-like good looks and had too many links to the red channels of New York's Greenwich Village socialist crowd that took their cultural cues from Eugene O'Neill and Corliss Lamont.The closet right wing and probably closet gay Kerouac suddenly emerged as a handsome cultural icon in 1957, the same year president Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system to put more Americans on the road.
Kerouac and his entourage then preceded to jolt the scared minds of McCarthy era America and got amped up globally as a symbol of cultural freedom while the Cold War Soviet police state was shipping writers and poets to the gulag and the Lubyanka for trying to be like Jack. The Cold War era backstory that made the ex-Columbia University football jock a poster boy for the beatnik social network offers a look at the murky netherworld of cultural public diplomacy gatekeepers who have long operated at the intersection of entertainment and government.
While the beatniks were bouncing between New York and San Francisco the likes of Tom Braden, Stuart Alsop and others with CIA connections subtly worked around the agency's charter and mediated domestic culture and politics in New York, Hollywood and Washington. And domestic MKUltra mind control experiments green lighted by CIA scientist Dr. Sidney Gottlieb during the 1950s and revealed by the Church and Rockefeller Commissions during the 1970s made beatnik drug use look tame.
Today, the old company ties continue. While beatnik wannabe Johnny Depp shells out big money for the typewriter and raincoat used by Kerouac, Stuart Alsop the younger is busy with his partner former U.S.Navy SealGilman Louie shaping and monitoring the Silicon Valley culture through an investment company that has strong CIA ties. One reason you hear more about the Occupy Wall Street movement than an Occupy Silicon Valley Movement.
William Burroughs, the wealthy beatnik hard drugs icon, was politically insulated since his family fortune came from the office machines that helped computerize the Pentagon and drive the nascent defense driven economy. He had the money and political connections to beat a murder rap after shooting his wife in a 1951 Mexico City gunplay incident. And he understood the basic principles of hype as the nephew of public relations pioneer Ivy Lee. Kerouac even used the pseudonym Lee for Burroughs in On The Road after being required to use fake names by his publisher.
Lee's PR playbook helped set the stage for the CIA-backed Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF) during the Cold War that gave credibility to the beatniks. The CCF backed writers and artists world wide in an effort to get push back on communist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. And Lee's strong social network of Big Tobacco fatcats featured companies like British-American Tobacco (BAT) as business covers for spies and propagandists like former MI5 chief Sir Roger Hollis who early on operated through BAT in opium hungry China. Hollis maintained his own set of rules for playing the great game, namely making sure that both sides were treated equally by providing them with the appropriate dosage of information or disinformation.
Traditional family values and and culture influenced Kerouac from the start. Fluent in French from childhood Kerouac could have followed his Lowell High classmate Nick Natsios who parlayed his Greek language fluency into a career as a legendary CIA station chief in Saigon and elsewhere. While he was COS in Saigon the CIA proprietary Air America helped ship heroin and opium to market, enabling those who needed to mainline the beatnik experience.
Kerouac, meanwhile, dropped out, shipped out and boozed out, discharged honorably from merchant marine service but with a bad psychiatric report card and a "Joe The Plumber" hardhat view of America.
Spurning that Kerouac trait, Coppola, whose work on the movie "Patton" boosted an American ego bruised by the Vietnam war, banked on a blueblood Brazilian to make an entertaining road movie about a renegade subculture. It was another indication of how Coppola's noblesse oblige filmland persona cuts both ways, playing to Hollywood right wingers and liberals. It has been suggested, for example, that he used rogue CIA operator Anthony Poshepny as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Known to Nick Natsios and his social network, the man who operated as Tony Poe worked with anticommunist tribal leaders and Taiwanese crews throughout Southeast Asia and helped pioneer the guns for drugs trade that was later used in the Iran-Contra scam in the Middle East and Latin America. In a classic case of denial non-denial, Coppola and Poe appropriately dismissed the Kurtz characterization as the fantasy of conspiracy theorists.
Coppola has messed with the Great American Novel before and paid a heavy price. His screenplay for the expensive David Merrick production of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby generated a movie that bombed at the box office and got panned by most critics.
Those capitvated by On The Road's racy sex scenes have little interest in why Enterprise Kerouac has long been star-crossed. There has been a long standing family feud between Kerouac's blood daughter writer Jan Kerouac, who was a product of his first marriage and died in New Mexico in 1996, and his third wife Stella Sampas who he married when he was on the schneid in 1966.
With traditional working class roots, she had little in common with Jack's beatnik friends. Her image was consistent with the "forgotten Americans" who put Richard Nixon in the White House. She defered in business decisions to her brother John, who has captained family efforts to monetize the Kerouac estate and brand, which he has continued to do after her death in 1990. A decision by a judge in Pinellas County, Florida finding that the will of Kerouac's mother was a forgery has put the Kerouac affair in the pantheon with the world's great literary estate battles that include Joyce, Kafka and Tolkein.
To add value to and legitimize the Kerouac literary brand Council of Foreign Relations member and noted historian Douglas Brinkley was made the official biographer of the blue collar road trip hero. The lustre provided by Brinkley's work has succeeded to some extent in making the term beatnik a politically incorrect and discriminatory colloquialism, stripping the tag from the Cold War era from which it emerged.
Amidst the Kerouac hype little attention is given to the most influential of the San Francisco beatniks, poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, (Monsanto in On the Road) whose City Lights bookstore was the point of contact for nearly everybody in the beatnik social network who was on the road. Ferlinghetti. not from a working class background, had a sense of propriety and dignity that his close friend Kerouac frequently lacked. While Kerouac was getting red, white and boozy with his friend William F. Buckley on Firing Line Ferlinghetti was doing televised poetry readings with Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that promoted detente and projected cultural freedom behind the Iron Curtain as much as the on the roadsters did. In addition, the chapbooks of poems and short stories his City Lights bookstore sold served as a technical model for the samizdat publications of Soviet human rights activist and noted refusenik Anatoly Natan Scharansky who now resides in Israel. Ferlinghetti is one of those who chose not to attend the funeral of Jack Kerouac.
All the conflict and ballyhoo has given owning a piece of the Kerouac experience the social cache of owning a Picasso or a Hockney. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was too cheap to pay star quarterback Peyton Manning what he wanted to keep him on the Colts, was more than willing to shell out $2.4 million to buy the original teletype roll manuscript of On The Road at a Christie's auction.
Regardless of whether he was a beatnik or just a beat, the famous Kerouac wore khakis ad campaign that started in 1993 did not keep GAP, a major garment retailer, from taking both names to the bank. And with movie fans influenced increasingly by tweetstream buzz Coppola and Salles -- who could be playing a stronger and more visible role in providing leadership for the film industry in his native Brazil instead of being a global gadfly on the fringes of A-group Hollywood -- might want to start wearing their lucky khakis more too.